Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts. Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended. As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
Food in 20th-Century American Cities
American Food, Cooking, and Nutrition, 1900–1945
Helen Zoe Veit
The first half of the 20th century saw extraordinary changes in the ways Americans produced, procured, cooked, and ate food. Exploding food production easily outstripped population growth in this era as intensive plant and animal breeding, the booming use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and technological advances in farm equipment all resulted in dramatically greater yields on American farms. At the same time, a rapidly growing transportation network of refrigerated ships, railroads, and trucks hugely expanded the reach of different food crops and increased the variety of foods consumers across the country could buy, even as food imports from other countries soared. Meanwhile, new technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, reliable industrial canning, and, by the end of the era, frozen foods, subtly encouraged Americans to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before. Yet as American food became more abundant and more affordable, diminishing want and suffering, it also contributed to new problems, especially rising body weights and mounting rates of cardiac disease. American taste preferences themselves changed throughout the era as more people came to expect stronger flavors, grew accustomed to the taste of industrially processed foods, and sampled so-called “foreign” foods, which played an enormous role in defining 20th-century American cuisine. Food marketing exploded, and food companies invested ever greater sums in print and radio advertising and eye-catching packaging. At home, a range of appliances made cooking easier, and modern grocery stores and increasing car ownership made it possible for Americans to food shop less frequently. Home economics provided Americans, especially girls and women, with newly scientific and managerial approaches to cooking and home management, and Americans as a whole increasingly approached food through the lens of science. Virtually all areas related to food saw fundamental shifts in the first half of the 20th century, from agriculture to industrial processing, from nutrition science to weight-loss culture, from marketing to transportation, and from kitchen technology to cuisine. Not everything about food changed in this era, but the rapid pace of change probably exaggerated the transformations for the many Americans who experienced them.
The Rise of Chinese Food in the United States
The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience. The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.
Food in 19th-Century American Cities
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices. These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
Plantation Life in the British West Indies, 1650–1850
Over two million enslaved people labored on cash crop plantations in the British West Indies in the almost two hundred years between the development of sugar plantations on Barbados in the 1650s and the age of emancipation in the 1830s. Although both the sizes of plantations and the crops produced varied across the Caribbean, generally the system of enslavement and therefore the plantation life generated within that system, did not. The contours of enslaved lives were shaped by myriad forces—the violence of the institution of slavery, the strictures of gender, reproduction, and patriarchy, the racial animosity engendered by whites, the hierarchies of the enslaved community, and the demographic reality of the colonies. The labor enslaved women, men, and children performed, the violence they endured, the familial and kinship ties they forged, the cultural practices they engaged in, and the strategies they employed to challenge their bonded status, were the constituent elements of their enslavement and their daily lives. But once slavery ended, the demands of the plantation did not fade. Neither did the racist attitudes of whites about people of African descent, or elite assumptions about what constituted a good subject in Britain’s burgeoning empire. As they forged new lives in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, former slaves grappled with how to set limits on their labor, build families, and live lives free from white scrutiny and oppression.
Latino Labor in the US Food Industry, 1880–2020
Lori A. Flores
If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.
Agriculture and Food Aid in US Policymaking during the Cold War
Kristin L. Ahlberg
In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.
Foreign Economic Aid
Jeffrey F. Taffet
In the first half of the 20th century, and more actively in the post–World War II period, the United States government used economic aid programs to advance its foreign policy interests. US policymakers generally believed that support for economic development in poorer countries would help create global stability, which would limit military threats and strengthen the global capitalist system. Aid was offered on a country-by-country basis to guide political development; its implementation reflected views about how humanity had advanced in richer countries and how it could and should similarly advance in poorer regions. Humanitarianism did play a role in driving US aid spending, but it was consistently secondary to political considerations. Overall, while funding varied over time, amounts spent were always substantial. Between 1946 and 2015, the United States offered almost $757 billion in economic assistance to countries around the world—$1.6 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. Assessing the impact of this spending is difficult; there has long been disagreement among scholars and politicians about how much economic growth, if any, resulted from aid spending and similar disputes about its utility in advancing US interests. Nevertheless, for most political leaders, even without solid evidence of successes, aid often seemed to be the best option for constructively engaging poorer countries and trying to create the kind of world in which the United States could be secure and prosperous.
The United States Department of Agriculture, 1900–1945
President Abraham Lincoln signed the law that established the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed the law that raised the Department to Cabinet status. Thus, by 1900 the US Department of Agriculture had been established for nearly four decades, had been a Cabinet-level department for one, and was recognized as a rising star among agricultural science institutions. Over the first half of the next century, the USDA would grow beyond its scientific research roots to assume a role in supporting rural and farm life more broadly, with a presence that reached across the nation. The Department acquired regulatory responsibilities in plant and animal health and food safety and quality, added research in farm management and agricultural economics, provided extension services to reach farms and rural communities in all regions, and created conservation and forestry programs to protect natural resources and prevent soil erosion and flooding across the geographical diversity of rural America. The Department gained additional responsibility for delivering credit, price supports, supply management, and rural rehabilitation programs during the severe economic depression that disrupted the agricultural economy and rural life from 1920 to 1940, while building efficient systems for encouraging production and facilitating distribution of food during the crises of World War I and World War II that bounded those decades. In the process, the Department became a pioneer in developing the regulatory state as well as in piloting programs and bureaucratic systems that empowered cooperative leadership at the federal, state, and local levels and democratic participation in implementing programs in local communities.